Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Man Utd extend their lead on top

Dimitar Berbatov fired Manchester United seven points clear at the top of the Barclays Premier League, scoring the winner in a 2-1 victory at lowly Newcastle.

The Bulgarian clinched the points with a 56th-minute strike, but United had to come from behind to re-establish their advantage over Chelsea and Liverpool with a game in hand.

There was jubilation on Tyneside when, with just nine minutes gone, Peter Lovenkrands ended Edwin Van der Sar's record of not having conceded a league goal since November 8 after the keeper failed to cling on to Jonas Gutierrez's shot.

But it took the visitors just 11 minutes to restore parity through Wayne Rooney, and Berbatov ensured United's run of successive league wins stretched to 11 after Park Ji-Sung pounced on an error by Ryan Taylor.

As Sir Alex Ferguson's bandwagon rumbled on ominously, opposite number Chris Hughton was at least able to console himself with a spirited performance in front of an appreciative crowd of 51,636, although that will count for little if it is not transformed into points over the coming weeks.

Such have been the contrasting fortunes of the two clubs this season since they drew 1-1 at Old Trafford during the opening round of fixtures in August, that the talk before kick-off was not of if United would win, but by how many.

But with just nine minutes gone, it was Newcastle who took the lead against all odds as Van der Sar's run without conceding a Premier League goal came to an end in ignominious circumstances.

The Dutchman failed to hold Jonas' shot as it leapt up off the sodden turf and Lovenkrands stabbed the rebound home before casting an anxious glance at referee Steve Bennett's assistant and only then beginning his celebrations.

St James' Park erupted as fans who had arrived fearing a repeat of Liverpool's 5-1 demolition job at the end of December - United won on Tyneside by the same scoreline last season - dared to believe their side could emerge with something to show for their efforts.

It might have been 2-0 within four minutes when Obafemi Martins fired inches wide under pressure from Rio Ferdinand, with the Nigerian also forcing a good 31st-minute block from the England defender after Van der Sar had failed to deal with a Ryan Taylor corner.

However, by that point, United had made the most of their greater share of the possession to get themselves back on level terms in fine style.

Rooney, back in the side after recovering from a virus, turned superbly past Fabricio Coloccini on to John O'Shea's pass and blasted a left-foot shot past Steve Harper with the help of a deflection off Steven Taylor, although the defender's contribution was largely irrelevant.

United continued to enjoy the greater share of the ball and defender Nemanja Vidic header over with the goal at his mercy after the home defence had failed to deal with a 39th-minute Michael Carrick corner.

But the Magpies continued to threaten with Martins and Jonas causing problems.

Mr Bennett had to deal with an ugly incident in injury time when Steven Taylor caught Cristiano Ronaldo with a flailing arm and then careered into Carrick on the sideline, sparking a furious response from skipper Ferdinand.

After consulting his assistant, the referee booked Taylor, and Ferdinand followed him as he continued his protests following the half-time whistle.

A feisty affair continued in the same vein after the break with Vidic accusing Martins of catching him with an elbow as the pair jumped for a high ball.

Van de Sar had to race from his line to prevent Lovenkrands from latching on to a 52nd-minute through-ball, but when the second goal did arrive, it did so predictably at the other end.

Ryan Taylor slipped as he attempted to chest a deep ball back to Harper and Park got there first to square for Berbatov, who calmly slotted it into the empty net.

Newcastle were visibly deflated by the reverse as United once again assumed control, and they might have increased their lead as they powered their way towards the final whistle.

Harper had to save from Ronaldo and Berbatov in quick succession as time ran down, and then dived bravely at the Portugal international's feet after he had slipped away from Steven Taylor.

But Newcastle made one last push and it was Van der Sar who finished the busier of the two keepers as he kept out first Lovenkrands and then Martins, although without any great difficulty.

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